Phillip Hughes obituary: an unconventional batsman left stranded on the ascent to his peak

An unconventional batsman with a twitchy style of batting, Phil Hughes loved to cut, drive, slog and pull in his own unique way. If anything, he had worked hard to become a good hooker and puller of the cricket ball. Thus, it comes as an even bigger shock that the 25-year-old lost his life two days after being hit on the back of his neck with a ball while attempting a pull shot during a Sheffield Shield match on Tuesday.

Never a follower of the batsman’s manual, Hughes had the ability to keep you fretting over his technique before each ball and entertain you with his strokeplay after a successful execution. A left-handed batsman, one of his few elegant strokes was the cover drive, which he used with aplomb against full-length deliveries outside off-stump. Against the spinners, Hughes loved to give himself room and go for the big slog—a shot he used in twice in succession and to maximum effect to bring him to his first Test century five years ago in Durban.

By and large, Hughes was the aggressive rebel with a cricket bat in hand, which he used more like a tennis racket, or at times a golf club. His cuts, slices and slashes through the off-side, and slaps and slogs over mid-wicket—all carried out via a springy, fidgety, but effective technique—brought him 1,535 runs in 26 Test matches at an average of 32.65, including three hundreds and seven fifties. He was a slightly better one-day player, with an average of 35.91 in the shorter version after playing 25 times for Australia.

In first-class cricket, Hughes plundered more than 9,000 runs, hitting 26 centuries at a healthy average of 46.51. After five years in international cricket, it was clear that he hadn’t quite fulfilled his true potential, but it wasn’t too long ago when he was even compared to the great Don Bradman. Thus, the cruelty of losing his life three days short of his 26th birthday wasn’t lost on the game’s enthusiasts.

Born in the small, coastal town of Macksville, New South Wales, on November 30, 1988, Phillip Joel Hughes was raised on a banana farm by his father, Greg, and Italian mother, Virginia. In an interview with Cricket Australia, Hughes revealed he played rugby during his early years, but eventually fixated on cricket, so much so that a bowling machine had to transferred to his home from the Macksville Cricket Club.

At age 17, Hughes moved to Sydney to play for Western Suburbs in the highest level of grade cricket in the country. A year later, he made his first-class debut, playing for New South Wales against Tasmania in 2007. It wasn’t long before he became the youngest player to hit a century in a final of the Sheffield Shield (erstwhile Pura Cup). Hughes’s 116 helped his team beat Victoria and clinch the title.

Test cricket soon came knocking on Hughes’s door at the ripe age of 20, when he was hauled into the team and handed the daunting task of replacing the retired Matthew Hayden. He was dismissed for a duck on debut, but bounced back in style to score 75, 115 and 160 in his next three innings, thereby becoming the youngest ever Test player to score a hundred in either innings of a match. That he achieved the feat against a South African pace attack comprising Dale Steyn, Makhaya Ntini, Morne Morkel and Jacques Kallis only made it more gratifying.

After such a promising start to his career, it would come as a surprise to learn that Hughes’s next Test hundred took more than two years in the making, against Sri Lanka in the summer of 2011. He played in three Ashes series since his debut, but didn’t make an impact until the 2013 series in the UK when he scored an unbeaten 81 and helped put on 163 for the last wicket along with No. 11 Ashton Agar at Trent Bridge. Unfortunately for Hughes, it was his 19-year-old record-breaking Test debutant partner who earned all the plaudits. The Lord’s Test that followed was the last match he played in whites for Australia.

His lack of prolificacy in the longer format meant that his one-day international debut was delayed until the Australian summer of 2012-13 against Sri Lanka at Melbourne. This time, Hughes was determined to avoid a duck on debut and ended up scoring 112 off 129 balls. He remains the only Australian to record a century on ODI debut. In July 2012, Hughes broke the List A record for his country by hitting a double century against South Africa ‘A’.

Right until his immortal, unbeaten half-century for South Australia against NSW on November 25, when he was felled by a Sean Abbott bouncer that knocked him unconscious and eventually proved fatal, Hughes was stuck somewhere between perception and reality. Former England cricketer Kevin Pietersen, writing for The Telegraph, said that Hughes “was a dangerous player that you wanted to get out early because you knew if he stayed in for a whole session he would score quickly.” Hughes’s captain, Michael Clarke, said that he was destined to play 100 Tests—a rare milestone achieved by players who are considered greats. Instead, he was left stranded on 63 not out, on the ascent towards his career’s peak.

Hughes’s death has already reopened and flared up debates about protective gear and bowling bouncers in cricket. As the world of cricket continues to try and recover from the shocking news from Thursday morning, Australia’s upcoming Test match against India at Brisbane next week is in doubt of being abandoned altogether. But would Hughes have wanted that?

“Phil is the type of guy you’d expect to walk about with a surfboard under his arm, because he’s always looking for the next wave,” Hughes’s Middlesex teammate and roommate Nick Compton told CNN. If anything, he would be twitching for the game to go ahead without a single change to the rules, like nothing ever happened.

Phillip Hughes, born November 30 1988, died November 27 2014.

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